The GoFundMe Border Wall Is Finished. It’s Not Stopping Migrants From Coming In.
“Regardless of what they build, they’re still coming in,” one resident said. “This is just political crap.”
SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico — Fernando Ontiveroz supported building a wall on the southern border, but just days after he heard that one was being constructed on private land a few miles away, he saw a group of immigrants being detained in his own neighborhood.
"I don't think it's working," he said about the new crowdfunding effort to build a wall at the US–Mexico border.
It's not uncommon to see immigrants stopped by Border Patrol agents in this small border city, which sits so close to the Mexico border that most of its 14,000 residents live on a spot of land south of the Rio Grande. But it had been years since Ontiveroz had seen Border Patrol agents detaining immigrants in his neighborhood.
We Build the Wall raised more than $20 million in a viral GoFundMe effort earlier this year to build a border wall that, according to the group, would curb illegal immigration, deter drug smuggling, and deal a blow to human trafficking.
"We plugged the hole of the worst smuggling route on the entire border!" Brian Kolfage, a decorated Iraq War veteran and founder of We Build the Wall, declared on Twitter. "We cut them off."
But days after the half-mile private barrier was erected, groups of people continued to stream over the border and into the New Mexico city. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people have been apprehended within view of the newly built wall, and residents are worried the barrier has only redirected migrants to other parts of town, creating new problems and possibly making matters worse.
The only thing the new wall has done, Ontiveroz said, was toss his quiet hometown into the middle of a national political fight.
"It's a bunch of bullshit," he said.
While people continue to cross the border — some simply walking around the new wall — construction workers, news crews, and politicians who have descended upon the small desert town will soon depart, leaving residents like him to deal with the unforeseen consequences, he said.
"It is always the case, where you have outsiders coming in thinking they have a solution," Javier Perea, mayor of Sunland Park, told BuzzFeed News. "Building the wall won't change the source of the problem."
City officials were caught off guard by news of the wall's construction. Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and a board member of We Build the Wall, announced on Fox News that construction had started on Memorial Day. The next day, the city of Sunland Park issued a stop-work order to the group, declaring the project in violation of city ordinances.
Kolfage claimed simultaneously on social media that the project was in compliance and that the organization had purposely started construction during the three-day weekend, "when the corrupt city was partying over the holiday."
It was a face-off the city would lose.
"We didn't ask for the national spotlight," Perea said. "It did catch everyone by surprise, and when you have low resources, it's hard to respond."
Now city officials are keeping an eye on how the new stretch of wall affects border crossings, but so far little seems to be changing.
Late Friday night, three men and two women — all carrying children or holding their hands — approached a BuzzFeed News reporter and photographer immediately across the Rio Grande where the half-mile stretch of wall was being completed.
"Where's the entrance to the United States?" they asked in Spanish, telling BuzzFeed News that they had traveled on foot from Guatemala. "Where do we turn ourselves in?" There were no border agents nearby.
The group walked about a block before they were stopped by an agent with the International Boundary and Water Commission, the agency that addresses waterway issues between the US and Mexico.
Within minutes the group had grown to more than 50 people from Honduras and Guatemala, and Border Patrol agents soon arrived. After an hour, the group had swelled to 80 people.
"This is every night, man, every night," said the IBWC agent, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. "I was supposed to get off at midnight."
According to US Customs and Border Patrol, the El Paso sector has seen a major increase in apprehensions, including more than 13,000 unaccompanied minors, in fiscal year 2019. During the same time period, the sector has seen more than 104,000 family-unit detentions.
The IBWC agent said he's already seen people carving new paths around the private border wall. Some are willing to cross through the river — a potentially dangerous endeavor when waters begin to rise. Others are making the trek, with children in hand, across a higher, steeper hill nearby.
The following night, another group of 54 people were stopped at the same location, a stone's throw away from the base of the crowdfunded wall. It took nearly an hour for Border Patrol officials to arrive with enough vans to transport the group to a detention center.
A wall constructed during the Bush administration already runs along most of the border near Sunland Park, except for a stretch of tall, steep hills that jut out on the eastern part of the city. It's a mostly industrial area, where asylum-seekers have often emerged in the city in search of Border Patrol agents so they can turn themselves in.
With the private wall cutting off access to a half-mile stretch of those hills, leaving only the steeper, more treacherous part open, residents are concerned that immigrants will begin crossing in other parts of the city, toward the west and into neighborhoods.
"What it will do is funnel migrants to many different parts," Perea said. "I don't know where."
The purpose of the construction, Jorge Alaniz said, doesn't seem to be erecting a border wall.
"I think it's a lot of political theater," the 44-year-old El Paso resident said. "They're trying to get a point across."
Alaniz used to live in Sunland Park, where he and his siblings would sometimes jump in the river to play, often with kids from Ciudad Juárez. He still remembers when there was no border wall and residents of Juárez and Sunland Park would travel back and forth between towns for groceries and family visits.
He understands the worries of residents, he said, who sometimes see strangers walking the streets and become worried for their own safety.
"They traveled thousands of miles by foot, so they'll do whatever it takes," Alaniz said. "I also understand these people are desperate. They're hungry and they're trying to survive."
It's a sentiment echoed by Jose Luis Uñiga, who runs a food truck in town and often works late. "Only someone who is out, like me, at one or two in the morning knows what's going on," he said.
Uñiga was born in Juárez but has lived in Sunland Park for 25 years. He was lucky, he said. After crossing without papers into the US, he benefited from President Ronald Reagan's immigration amnesty in 1986.
He said he feels for people who, as he once did, cross the border illegally to escape violence or poverty in their countries. But when asked if he supported building a border wall, he looked away as if a bit embarrassed by his answer.
"I'm going to tell you, I'm not really against it," Uñiga said. "This country has given me my children; it's given me a way to make a living to eat — everything that Mexico didn't give me."
He knows that's a sentiment that aligns him with backers of President Donald Trump, of whom he does not consider himself a supporter.
There are other supporters of the wall as well. Even if it's not effective in shutting down the border, supporters tout the significance behind it, and the fact that private donations helped pay for it.
Art Richards, who works in real estate in El Paso, was out on Saturday with his wife wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat and waving pro-Trump signs at cars passing by.
"Right now it's about awareness and widening our party," he said.
The wall, and the president's rally in El Paso in February, he said, are helping to recruit Republicans to what has been a historically blue city.
As he talks to reporters, a few cars whiz by honking their horns in support. One maroon car slows down and two middle fingers emerge from the sunroof.
The wall, he said, makes a point about the country's stance.
"This is a sovereign nation," Richards said. "If we don't do something to stop the onslaught of people coming in, it won't be a sovereign nation."
It's that rhetoric, however, that has befuddled some town residents, including those who support a border wall. Alaniz, who grew up in the area surrounded by three cities, two state lines, and one international border, used to view it as one big community.
"Regardless of what they build, they're still coming in," he said. "This is just political crap."
Perea, the mayor, said the issue of immigration was nothing new for the city. Migrants, even those quickly stopped by border officials, have long been a normal part of life in Sunland Park.
"The wall has been there, and we've had a wall since the Bush administration," he said. "We just don't see it anymore."